7 ways to hack your creativity

I’ve been doing a lot of adventure writing recently, and even though writing is something I enjoy doing, it isn’t always easy. Creativity is hard! Over time, though, I have picked up several tips and tricks that I thought I would compile in today’s article. I’m writing with D&D and tabletop roleplaying games in mind, but much of this advice extends to creativity and expression in all its forms: song-writing, poetry, the visual arts, even cooking. As always, if there’s anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below.

The tips:

  1. Let the tap flow
  2. Write, write, write
  3. Steal and combine
  4. Ask interesting questions
  5. Leave blanks and restrict yourself
  6. Believe in yourself
  7. Appreciate the role of failure

Let’s go!

1. Let the tap flow

This is perhaps my number one method for getting creative (and productive), and it’s curious how many different creative people refer to it in some way.

The metaphor of a tap might come from Ed Sheeran originally. (Maybe. It’s hard to tell on the Internet.) Here’s the idea:

View it as a dirty tap. When you switch a dirty tap on, it’s going to flow shit water out for a substantial amount of time, and then clean water is going to start flowing. And now and then you’ll get a bit of shit, but as long as it gets out of you, it’s fine. So with songs, you’re going to write shit songs at the beginning – you are. [. . .] The more and more you write, the more and more you experience, and then you start flowing clean water, and songs start getting better and better and better.

Taylor Swift and Neil Gaiman allegedly follow a similar principle. So do the writers at Pixar. So does Sly Flourish. Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4 am, writes for five hours, then goes for a walk.

Sometimes the best way to be creatively productive is to go for quantity over quality. If in doubt, make a list. What are ten cool things about this character, magic item, dungeon, town? The first two or three will come easily to you; the last two or three will really stretch you. Fate-style aspects can be a good way to approach this.

Essentially: keep creating, even if you think it’s crap.

2. Write, write, write

Linked to the point above, perhaps, but for goodness’ sake, write. Keep a notebook; putting an idea down on paper is the first stage of sharing it. Don’t assume that a good idea will come back to you – it might not. This is particularly important with the ideas you get in those idle moments when you aren’t necessarily concentrating that hard: shower thoughts, ideas that come when you’re cleaning your teeth, that sort of thing (I believe it’s called a theta state). Thomas Edison would apparently nap on a rocking chair, holding a ball in each hand; he hoped the sound of the balls hitting the floor would wake him and give him a chance to capture the thoughts he was having at the moment of nodding off. Who knows, maybe it works?

Try to carve out a bit of time each day to do something creative, even if it’s just a list or a sketch. And keep your notes somewhere, even if it’s just on a phone.

In short: writers write.

3. Steal and combine

There are several related tips mixed up together in this one, which is rather fitting, given the point I’m trying to make. Let’s bullet point them:

  • All art is derivative.
  • There’s nothing truly original under the sun.
  • If in doubt, mash up three things
  • Fill your well.

Neil Gaiman puts this better than me:

Most of all, I think ideas come from confluence. They come from two things flowing together.

Star Wars is a mash-up of World War 2 and Japanese samurai stories (especially Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) in space. Diablo is probably a mash-up of roguelikes, dark fantasy, and Abrahamic religion, perhaps with a dash of Doom. Borderlands is probably a mash-up of Mad Max, Diablo, and maybe Halo. Pick three of your favourite things, combine them, and see what you get. In a pinch, you can even take one element and change one thing about it. ‘Aragorn – but female.’ ‘Robin Hood – but evil.’ ‘Borderlands – but medieval fantasy.’

What about ‘fill your well’? If you’re going to steal, surround yourself with cool stuff to steal from. Books, films, TV shows, video games, music, art, comic books, other RPGs: give yourself a rich diet of creativity. Here’s my list. Music and art are particularly effective for me as they take me out of the world of words and place me in the world of the senses. ‘Busy mind? Write. Empty mind? Read.’ I can’t remember who said this, but it’s good advice.

Steal, adapt, combine.

(By the way, the writers at Pixar have pointed out that most stories follow this structure:

‘Once Upon a Time There Was______. Every day, _______. One day, ________. Because of that, ______. Because of that, _______. Until finally, ______.’

Don’t kill yourself trying to be too original.)

4. Ask interesting questions

One of my favourite tips from Justin Alexander is also incredibly simple:

And the more I think about it, creativity often comes from asking interesting questions. In On Writing, Stephen King proposes that:

the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot).

What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo).

Try it with your D&D campaign! ‘What if raise dead stopped working?’ ‘What if the Ordning fell apart?’ ‘What if Tiamat and all the other BBEGs . . . won?

One more question I really like to think about with my games is ‘What is the villain doing right now?’ (Hat-tip to Sly Flourish for this one.) It’s a great way of adding realism to your world, as it ensures that events keep moving in the background. ‘Why is the villain doing this? What do they want? How do they feel about the party?’ Keep asking interesting questions, and good ideas will come.

5. Leave blanks and restrict yourself

A couple of different tricks here.

‘Leave blanks’ is one of the recurring principles of Dungeon World, the fantasy RPG based on Apocalypse World. ‘Every blank is another cool thing waiting to happen,’ the game tells us, so ‘leave yourself a stock of them.’

Why do I refer to this now? Doesn’t it run contrary to the principle of ‘write, write, write’ and ‘letting the tap flow’?

Sort of – but not entirely. If you’re anything like me, you can very quickly slip into perfectionism when being creative. It’s tempting to detail every corner of a map, every dungeon backstory. Leaving blanks to come back to later (or not) can be extremely liberating – and unless you’re creating something for publication, entirely necessary.

We might also refer to ‘restricting yourself’ as the Dr Seuss method. Challenged to write ‘a story that first-graders can’t put down’, he limited himself to 236 words that every six-year-old should know. The result? The Cat in the Hat. I did something similar with Adventures in Hawk’s Rest, limiting myself to monsters of CR ¼ or lower at 1st level and only to monsters from the Monster Manual. The challenge made me more creative and more imaginative about how to use classic monsters in more interesting ways. You might restrict yourself in other ways. ‘A dungeon where most of the opponents are plants.’ ‘A town where everyone’s a tiefling.’ ‘A haunted house with no undead.’ I’m already excited by these ideas!

If you’ve hit a rut, use tricks to get yourself out of it. Restrict yourself and leave blanks.   

6. Believe in yourself

There are a few different versions of this one. Often, we talk about the importance of being kind to yourself. Take breaks, sleep, that sort of thing. I don’t want to discount this – it’s still important – but I’m getting at something a bit different.

In his video ‘Living a Creative Life’ (which you should watch in its entirety), Matt Colville talks about it in terms of ego:

It is OK to have an ego. It is OK to imagine that someone might think your ideas are cool. This is not a flaw. It is not something to be ashamed of. It is not presumptuous, even though some people around you will act as though it is, because it does not presume this makes you better than other people.

If you want to achieve anything creative, imposter syndrome is lethal. It’s a little demon on your shoulder, stealing your soul. Kill it.

Here’s another one. There’s an old piece of advice that writers should ‘write what they know’. (It’s probably why the French Revolution never shows up in Jane Austen novels, despite being arguably the most important thing going on in the world at the time.) I like how Pixar redefine this:

Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that this story feeds off? That’s the heart of it.

A bit like Colville’s thoughts about ego, this advice is more than just being ‘kind’ to yourself: it’s about recognizing that you, as a human being with all your experiences and thoughts and complexities, have something unique and personal to say. Use this to power your work.

Bonus tip: if you have creative friends, support them! Read their stuff, give them good reviews, share their products with like-minded friends. Hey, maybe even buy their work! But at the very least, take an interest in what they do. It will make their day.

7. Appreciate the role of failure

Some creatives talk about ‘embracing’ failure, but there’s something a bit nihilistic about the word for me. Failure isn’t fun. It isn’t something to aim for. You don’t want it to happen. And yet . . . it’s clearly a very important part of the creative process.

Success can come out of nowhere. I find this with my own blog: there are posts that I was pleased with, which I thought were original and carefully written, which didn’t seem to get anyone’s attention. (It’s OK, I’m over it.) There were also posts that I thought might be a bit niche which are now some of the most read on my site. There isn’t much of a correlation between the effort that goes into my writing and the way in which it is received. It’s a crapshoot, frankly, and you just have to embrace that a bit.

You’re not writing the final season of Game of Thrones: you don’t have thousands of fans scrutinizing every decision you make. You can afford to make a few mistakes, and you’ll get better as you do. After all no idea is ever wasted – you can always reuse it – and if it isn’t perfect, let go and do better next time.

Vincent Van Gogh produced 900 paintings. Picasso produced more than 13,000. David Bowie’s first eight singles flopped but he went on to write more than 400 songs over the course of his career.

I try to remind myself of this. Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are real demons of mine (CR 30), and sometimes I just need to keep doing what I’m doing. Not everything we create is going to ‘succeed’ in a big way, but we can always learn something from the process if we reflect on it. Let’s keep making stuff.    

Do you have any tips and tricks for bringing ideas to fruition? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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